BAGHDAD They have outraged Iraqis and been condemned by human rights groups, but next year the prisons in which U.S. forces hold thousands of Iraqis will be flung open under a U.S.-Iraq security pact.
That worries both the U.S. military, which fears hardened insurgents could again roam the streets, and rights campaigners who fear the opposite: that Iraqi authorities will transfer the detainees to Iraqi prisons -- and maybe torture or execute them.
"We are concerned that we will most likely release dangerous detainees back into the communities of Iraq who have directly contributed to the deaths of not only Iraqi and Coalition Forces, but countless numbers of civilians," said Major Neal Fisher, spokesman for U.S. detainee operations.
"Every detainee in our custody came to us because they posed an imperative threat to the security and stability of Iraq."
The security pact agreed with Iraq will give U.S. troops a legal basis to remain in the country for three more years, replacing a U.N. mandate that covered the presence of foreign forces in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
For the first time, Iraq will have authority over roughly 150,000 U.S. troops in the country.
Iraq's presidency council ratified the pact on Thursday, bringing it formally into effect until a referendum in July.
One of the powers the U.S. military loses under the new deal is the right to detain Iraqis indefinitely without charge.
That means it will have to turn the 16,000-17,000 detainees currently in its custody over to Iraqi authorities in an orderly manner. Under Iraqi law, they will have to be tried or released.
For U.S. officials, that is a headache. Thousands of prisoners, some of them former Sunni Arab insurgents or Shi'ite militiamen, will be back on the streets. For most, there is simply not enough evidence to keep them under lock and key.
The U.S. commander in charge of the detainee program, Brigadier-General David Quantock, was unavailable for an interview, but he told USA Today that officials were working hard to build cases against dangerous detainees.
"We're going to... make sure they stay behind bars," he said.
"NO ONE KNOWS WHERE YOU ARE"
The U.S. military has released some 15,000 prisoners in the past year. Fisher said it plans to release 1,500 more a month.
For rights groups, there is a dark irony in U.S. concerns about having to release Iraqis against whom there's no evidence.
"Why are they detained if they don't have adequate evidence against them?" asked Malcolm Smart, Director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Program.
"The numbers who've been released suggest that maybe there weren't good reasons to hold a lot of those people in the first place ... We need a proper process of law and order -- and that does mean not holding people in detention without trial."
One Iraqi, Jassim al-Mashhadani, said he spent three months in a U.S. prison. Details of his story could not be independently verified.
Eight U.S. soldiers burst into his house around midnight on January 21, 2006, seized him and placed a hood over his head, he says. They kept him in isolation for two weeks while they interrogated him.
"They used to tell me: no one knows where you are. If we kill you now, no one will know what happened to you," he said.
After that, he was sent to the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, west of Baghdad, where revelations of serious abuse by U.S. guards sent shockwaves around the world in 2004.
"They never let me call anyone, until a few days before they released me. Until now, I don't know why they arrested me," he said.
Abu Ghraib shot into the spotlight when pictures showing U.S. soldiers tormenting and sexually humiliating prisoners made world headlines. Mashhadani said he was not mistreated there.
But rights groups now fear Iraqi prisoners will face torture by Iraqi guards, after the transition to their control.
"Reports of torture and ill treatment of people (in Iraq) are persistent and so there's clearly a risk," Smart said.
He added that the legal system was not delivering fair trials, even in high profile cases of former members of ex-dictator Saddam Hussein's government.
Joost Hiltermann, Iraq expert at the International Crisis Group, said possible mistreatment of the mostly Sunni Arab prisoners under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ite-led government could stoke sectarian tensions.
Sunni Arab politicians say it doesn't have to be that way, as long as they keep only those they have evidence against.
"We do not support the release of terrorists," said Abdul al-Kareem al-Samarrai'i, a leading member of the Islamic Party. "(But most) ... detainees in American prisons are innocent."
(Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim and Aseel Kami; Editing by Michael Christie and Samia Nakhoul)